As the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake drops teasers, the dialog about anime being at the cutting edge (and movies years being behind that edge?) ignites anew. Of course, when appraising how ahead-of-its-time a ’95 flick was, it’s easy to forget that the anime revolution had already been spinning for decades prior to Ghost in the Shell‘s original release. The flicks listed below were big hits in the 70s, 60s, and 50s–lavish productions with striking style and innovative techniques– yet they’re almost never get brought up anymore. And that’s really a shame. Want to talk “classic” anime? Here are some true classics.
The Mystery of Mamo
An earlier Lupin III movie, over-shadowed by its sequel, The Castle of Cagilostro. While having your thunder stolen by Miyazaki is understandable, the irony is that this flick is devised by Monkey Punch, Lupin III’s creator, and therefore closer to the spirit of the manga. Mamo might not be as accessible as Cagilostro, but it’s the more intriguing of the two–weirder, creepier, and more fantastical. After faking his death, Lupin leads his criminal cohorts to steal the Philosopher’s Stone from the Necropolis of Giza (and this is long before Harry Potter, of course). The infamous thief does this at the request of his ever-unrequited love, Fujiko Mine, who in turn, serves the interests of a mysterious client, the titular Mamo.
Soon enough, the duo find themselves in Mamo’s secret lair in the Caribbean, and things get exponentially stranger from there. The deformed mastermind claims to be 10,000 years old–having a kind of immortality due to cloning–and now wants to claim Fujiko as his bride before enacting a godlike doomday plan. Obviously, Lupin’s having none of that, and their resultant chase somehow leads to brains in outer space. Fancy that. Despite the bizarrities, it’s actually Mamo‘s animation that truly makes it stand out, with a highly atmospheric, angular sense of design evocative of German expressionist films.
Little Norse Prince Valiant
Also known as The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun because international roll-outs were a bit less consistent in the 60s. While Miyazaki made his first feature with Lupin, this is actually the directorial debut of another Ghibli founder, Isao Takahata. Depending on which dub you find, it can play like a harrowing tale of revenge and survival… as produced by Ruby-Spears (who you may know as the producers of the Thundarr the Barbarian, Heathcliff, and Mister T cartoons).
Little Norse Prince is a very particular concoction of adult themes and childlike earnestness, following a sort-of junior Siegfried, “Hols,” who journeys across a Nordic fantasy realm that Beowulf might cohabitate. The fact that Hols’ sidekick is a cute bear makes this seem like a carefree kids adventure at first; until it’s made clear that the young hero is seeking vengeance on a wicked warlock who razed his village. Yikes. The gauntlet Hols must endure involves betrayal at the hands of a love interest, jealousy from the very townsfolk he saves, and some really gnarly battles with legions of wolves.
Panda and the Magic Serpent
Going back even farther into animation history, this title is the first color anime feature, and one of the first Japanese toon movies to make a go at theaters in the U.S. Unfortunately, American audiences in the 50s weren’t ready for it. An early effort from Toei (the studio that would later animate DBZ and One Piece, among others), it re-tells the centuries-old Chinese folktale, “Legend of the White Snake,” which centers on an unusual pair of star-crossed lovers.
A magical storm transforms the titular snake into a beautiful princess. She then re-enters the life of the boy who once owned her, until his parents made him give his pet up. The two are smitten upon reunion, but a monk comes between them, asserting that this “princess” is actually a demon in disguise. Whether you just want to roll with the dream logic or look for Freudian subtexts, this film remains a beautiful piece of art, recalling traditional paintings far more than contemporary cartoons. And the pair of pandas (one black, one red) who try to get these two crazy kids back together are just utterly adorable.
These are just handful of picks. What other rare anime gems from decades past deserve a viewing today? Drop your recs in the talkback.
Image Credits: Monkey Punch